Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of Knopf and chairman of Knopf Doubleday, has steered the vaunted literary publisher through myriad changes since taking over nearly three decades ago. Mehta has seen to it that Knopf hasn’t simply rested on its reputation—he’s cemented its place as one of the most successful literary imprints in the business.
Sonny Mehta is not a fan of talking about himself. This may be why he dismisses this honor as being a result, primarily, of surviving. While Mehta could indeed be called a survivor—he’s been at Random House, as editor-in-chief of Knopf, for almost 30 years—you won’t hear many people in the business referring to him as someone who’s merely stuck around. The editorial face of one of the most respected imprints in the business, he has been instrumental in turning Knopf, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, into something of an anomaly: a place that is known as much for publishing works of high literary merit as for bestsellers.
Talking to colleagues and industry members about Mehta, who joined Knopf in 1987, recurring themes appear. He has impeccable taste and instincts, for good material as well as salable material. He cares deeply about producing beautiful books. He has an unending sense of curiosity that manifests itself in his voracious—and wide—approach to reading. He’s deeply committed to finding the largest possible audience for his authors.
Although Mehta has cemented his stature in the business, he was not the obvious choice to run Knopf back in the 1980s. Born in India and partly educated in England—he attended college at Cambridge—Mehta earned his early reputation as a paperback publisher in the U.K. After starting his career at the small publisher Rupert Hart-Davis and working his way up the ladder through a series of acquisitions, he was given the opportunity to oversee a new paperback imprint, called Paladin. It was there, during the early 1970s, that Mehta published a string of authors—many of them Americans associated with the burgeoning counterculture—who weren’t reaching a wide readership in England, such as Tim Leary and Hunter S. Thompson. In the process, he turned Paladin into something of a rarity at the time: a paperback house that didn’t focus on reprints. By the time Mehta was offered the job at Knopf, he had moved to the U.K. publisher Pan and had burnished his reputation by launching the paperback imprint Picador, known for releasing high-quality books—both in content and design.
The job at Knopf, as Mehta recounts, basically fell in his lap. A call from Si Newhouse—the billionaire at the helm of the company that owned Random House at the time—led to an impromptu dinner. Weeks later a job offer came, from then-CEO Robert Bernstein. The transition, though, was not a seamless one.
Despite the fact that Mehta has maintained a practice of avoiding the press throughout his career—refer back to his disdain for talking about himself—there were hints that his early days at Knopf were not so easy. In a 1990 New York Times article, “New Publishing Star, Sonny Mehta, Talks Profits as Well as Art,” reporter Roger Cohen referred to early rumors that Mehta’s days were “numbered.” Although Mehta denies he was ever concerned about losing his job, he admits it was a difficult situation. For starters, Mehta was inheriting a staff that idolized its departing leader, Robert Gottlieb, who had decamped to become editor of the New Yorker. Then there was the simple matter of Mehta’s background: some questioned putting a London paperback publisher in charge of one of New York’s most prized hardcover imprints.
“He came in and it was apparent that he was in another element,” recalls Andy Hughes, who’s been at Knopf for 37 years and is now senior v-p of production and design. Mehta’s unfamiliarity with hardcovers was not the only thing that some of Knopf’s staffers noticed, either. As Hughes explains, where Gottlieb was “gregarious and effusive,” Mehta “watched and listened.”
What may have been initially perceived as aloofness, though, was quickly appreciated as something else. According to Hughes, Mehta’s “acute” instincts and tastes emerged early on, as did his commitment to making beautiful books. For Hughes, Mehta’s passion for the physical product—coming at a time when the industry was dealing with the emerging dominance of chain bookstores—was essential. Mehta understood, Hughes says, that in a superstore full of competing titles, “your book had to stand out with allure.”
While Mehta’s appreciation for bookmaking has been essential in maintaining Knopf’s reputation, to talk about his success is to acknowledge his skill with the material itself. Tony Chirico, who works hand-in-hand with Mehta running Knopf as president of the group, says he believes his colleague’s “editorial vision drives his business vision: what he’s always been very good at is making sure that marketing and publicity are all about the content of the book.” Mehta, Chirico adds, has also been good about not letting the bottom line drive editorial decisions, a priority that “leads to good business.”
Looking at Mehta’s own list of authors, which runs the gamut from Florida satirist Carl Hiaasen to Pulitzer-winning novelist Toni Morrison, offers a revealing glimpse into the commercial and critical success of Knopf.
“He’s the most curious person I’ve ever met,” explains Knopf executive editor Jordan Pavlin. “He’s also the most credulous, in the best sense of the word—he’s the person most likely to read anything, and to approach a book with a truly open mind.” Esther Newberg, a literary agent at ICM Partners, puts it more bluntly when she says Mehta “gets commerce.” Newberg brings up Jo Nesbø, the Norwegian crime novelist, as an example. “He went after Jo Nesbø who wasn’t being published well in America and look what he did for him.” (Nesbø was initially published in the U.S. by HarperCollins. After moving to Knopf, he found a much larger readership; a Knopf spokesperson said the publisher has sold more than 1.7 million copies of Nesbø’s books.)
Cormac McCarthy, like Nesbø, is an author who’s benefitted from the Mehta touch, achieving something of a literary rebirth with his third novel, and the first published by Mehta, 1992’s All the Pretty Horses. Recalling the book’s publication, Gary Fisketjon, v-p and editor-at-large at Knopf, says when he asked Mehta how many copies of the title they would need to sell in order to feel like they’d hit it out of the park, Mehta’s number was 30,000 copies higher than Fisketjon’s. It’s part of an attitude, Fisketjon feels, that drives people around Mehta to constantly strive for more. “I admire the way he’s not happy with what’s pretty good. With him, there’s always the question, ‘Why wasn’t it really good?’ ”
No one appreciates Mehta’s ability to blend commercial and critical success together more than his boss, PRH CEO Markus Dohle. Mehta is “committed to publishing the very best books and ensuring that they are designed and produced to exacting standards,” Dohle says. “It is this commitment to quality that is at the center of Knopf’s creative and business success.”
While many in the business will praise Mehta for giving a more commercial bent to Knopf, he feels the division hasn’t changed all that much during his tenure. When asked about his commercial sensibilities, Mehta downplays the notion that he brought something wildly new to Knopf, saying he thinks people initially worried about him because he had published a wide range of commercial authors in the U.K. “I think it’s always been part and parcel at Knopf, and people identify it with me because they had the terrible fear that I was going to suddenly publish Jackie Collins over here and really sort of lower the tone of the place.” He pauses. “I think the difference was that I probably encouraged people to market a lot more than they were in the habit of doing. I encouraged them to look at a certain type of literary fiction and see it wasn’t necessarily intended for some kind of ghetto, that there was a bigger market for it.”
Although Mehta says he tries to run Knopf like it’s a small press, it’s undeniably part of a much bigger business; revenue at PRH in 2014 was roughly $3.5 billion, and the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group now publishes about 550 titles per year. And as the industry at large has become more corporate, Mehta’s perch in the business, remains unique. That he’s a high-ranking publishing executive who cares about things other than product and P&L’s really hits home when you talk to his authors.
For Kazuo Ishiguro, who left Putnam (in the U.S.) for Knopf, Mehta’s skill as a publisher is rooted in a deep appreciation for writers and readers. “He’s got a weird thing about writers being terribly important people,” Ishiguro says, adding that this belief manifests itself in “obsessively supporting” his authors. The other faction Mehta cares about intensely is readers. And in this business, those people are often manifested in the form of independent booksellers. “He values the people who run bookstores. He values the reps that work for him,” Ishiguro says. “After I hand in a manuscript, he often sends me quotes from them first.”
Ishiguro has also seen, firsthand, how excited Mehta still gets about his job. “He said to me once some years ago, with childish glee, ‘I was in a bookshop and heard these two people discussing this book. I wanted to go up to them and say I published that book. I was so proud.’ I remember him saying that, and he really meant it. I thought that said quite a lot about Sonny.”
That Mehta has helped Knopf publish so many strong lists year after year—and consistently remain in the black—can’t be chalked up to luck. Paul Bogaards, Knopf executive v-p and director of media relations, who was hired by Mehta in 1989, thinks the strong performances remain, in part, because Mehta continues to care so much. “He still gets excited about the work,” Bogaards says. “I mean he will come in and drop a manuscript on my desk and say, ‘I want you to read this.’ So if, in the 21st century, a publisher is meant to stand for something, and it’s a well-curated list of acquisitions, he’s been able to help us do that.”
But couldn’t Mehta, with the skills his friends and colleagues say he possesses—a deep intelligence, an abiding faith in the ability to always do a bit better, an unimpeachable work ethic—have been a success in any business? When I pose this question to Bogaards, he says no, flatly. “He was meant to do this. I think he would fail miserably at most other jobs.”PW Notables Of the Year: Geoff KloskePW Notables Of the Year: Joyce MeskisPW Notables Of the Year: Chris JacksonPW Notables Of the Year: YouTube CelebritiesPW Notables Of the Year: Margot Atwell, Maris Kreizman, and Jamie Tanner